Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Good News! The Plutocracy is a Republic!

The best part about Warren Buffett's pledge to give thirty billion and seven hundred million dollars to Bill Gates' foundation is that the news coverage has focussed on the close friendship bewtween the two richest people in America. It is nice to see human relations on display, and the chance to watch Buffett and Gates taking manifest pleasure in one another's company should remind Americans that, rich or poor, we can all have the sort of mutually respectful relationship that Buffett and Gates share. I found it particularly beautiful that, at this crowning moment in Warren Buffett's marvelous career, he was clearly relishing the aspects of his life that money can't buy.

The New York Times, of course, did not want to cover the story from that angle. Rather than dwelling on the fact that, in this moment of titanic generosity, we are observing two thoroughly human individuals, they decided to focus on the extraordinary nature of those figures. The tone of unchecked adulation is set at the close of the opening paragraph, as they offer the tidbit that both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett delight in "solving complex math problems".

For people who take this sort of thing seriously -- probably including Buffett and Gates themselves -- the idea of "solving complex math problems" in one's spare time is ridiculous: there are currently only about a hundred "complex math problems" currently known, and it is a major event whenever one of them is solved. It is much more accurate to say that Gates and Buffett delight in solving "difficult math puzzles", a human activity that situates them in a continuum alongside afficianados of sudoko and crosswords, rather than the Olympian realm of Complex Mathematics. The phrasing of the New York Times is like describing a weekend softballer as a Major League Hall of Famer.

But the purpose of the Times' article is to show that Buffett and Gates are more demi-god than human, and that we are fortunate to walk in a world with such paragons. Exploring the foundations of their friendship, the intrepid Times journalist queried Don Graham, who explained it thusly: "When you are as smart as Warren or Bill, I think it's hard to find people to talk to." In other words, the two smartest people in America are the two richest people in America.

As it turns out, less smart people have long been aware that, beyond a certain level, money does not lead to happiness. Less smart people are occupied with things an order of magnitude more complicated than selling cigarettes to children or stealing intellectual property. Less smart people foresaw that Schwarzenheger would be a disaster, and would consider misrepresentation to be a reprehensible business tactic. The Times implies that Gates and Buffett would not be able to relate to people from the intellectually inferior strata of society, but, before discarding it in favor of Don Graham's assertion that our Plutocracy is a disguised Meritocracy, consider the possibility that smart, compassionate and socially aware people might find it hard to talk to folks like "Warren or Bill", and, equally, Warren and Bill would not be interested in the things that many smart people would say to them.

But all's well that ends well, and it's nice to see a high-functioning paranoid schizophrenic and a high-functioning dissociative schizophrenic making their peace with the world, considering that Gates made his fortune through the grinding suffering of his customers, and that much of the alpha that Buffett extracted from markets would otherwise have gone to pension funds. In fact, one could suggest that essential aggression towards the middle class underlay both of their careers and continues in their charitable work: it is noble to help the health infrastructure of the developing nations, but the structural consequence of building up those countries is to degrade the quality of life for the American middle class. Buffett and Gates are doing a "good" thing with their money, and it is probably the best that we could expect from them, but it is nonetheless a continuation of the aggression that underlay their success.


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